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A Mighty Fortress: Chapter Seventeen

       Last updated: Wednesday, March 24, 2010 01:08 EDT



HMS Destiny, 54
Off Hennet Head,
Gulf of Mathyas

    Someone from the planet humanity had once called Earth might have described it as “Force Six” from the old Beaufort scale. Ensign Hektor Aplyn-Ahrmahk, the Duke of Darcos, had never heard of the Beaufort scale, but he had been at sea for almost five of his fourteen years. Well, thirteen years and nine months, since his birthday was next month. And to his experienced eye, the eleven-foot waves, with their white foamy crests, and the high humming sound whining through the stays were the product of what a seaman would have called either a strong breeze or a stiff topsail breeze, which still had another four or five miles per hour to go before it officially became a near gale.

    Hektor suspected that most landsmen would have found the ship’s motion, the way she leaned to her canvas and the flying spray bursting up around her cutwater as she drove hard, rising in showers of diamonds when the early morning sun caught it, alarming. In fact, there’d been a time — though he couldn’t really remember it now — when he would have found it distinctly so. Now, though, he found it exhilarating (especially with his stomach so freshly wrapped around a breakfast of toasted biscuit and well-sweetened, raisin-laced oatmeal), despite the sharp, icy teeth of the wind, and he clapped his gloved hands together and beamed hugely as he looked up at the reefed topsails and topgallants, then turned to the senior of the two men on the wheel.

    “How does she feel, Chief?” he asked.

    “Well enough, Sir.”

    Chief Petty Officer Fhranklyn Waigan was closing in on three times the youthful ensign’s age, and Hektor was about as junior as an officer got. Once upon a time, all of three or four months ago, he would have been referred to not as an “ensign,” but as a “passed midshipman” — a midshipman who had successfully sat his lieutenant’s examination but not yet received his commission — since he legally couldn’t be granted a full lieutenant’s commission until he was at least sixteen years old. The new “ensign” rank had been introduced as part of the Navy’s enormous expansion, and the fleet was still in the process of getting used to it. But if Waigan felt any exasperation at being interrogated by an officer of Ensign Aplyn-Ahrmahk’s tender years and lack of seniority he showed no sign of it.

    “She’s takin’ a bit more weather helm nor I’d like,” Waigan added, “but not s’ much as all that.”

    Hektor nodded. Any sailing vessel carried at least a little weather helm when she came close to the wind, and at the moment Destiny was close-reaching to the east-northeast on the starboard tack under single reefed topgallants and topsails with the wind out of the south-southeast, just over three points abaft the beam. That was very close to close-hauled for HMS Destiny; Hektor doubted they could have edged more than another point or so closer to the wind, and damned few other square-riggers could have come this close.

    Of course, it made for a lively ride, but that was part of the exhilaration, and even with her reduced sail, the ship had to be making good close to seven knots — well, over six and a half, at least. That was an excellent turn of speed, although she could probably have carried more sail and shown a little more speed if Captain Yairley had decided to shake out the topgallant reefs and press her.

    Not that he’s likely to do anything of the sort without a damned good reason, Hektor thought with a small, inner smile. It would never suit his fussy worrier’s image!

    The truth was that Hektor recognized just how fortunate he’d been to be assigned to Yairley’s command in the first place. And not just because of the captain’s abilities as a mentor in tactics and seamanship, either. Hektor doubted there could have been a better teacher in the entire fleet for either of those skills, yet as appreciative as he was of that training, he was even more grateful for the time Yairley had taken to teach one Hektor Aplyn-Ahrmahk certain other, equally essential skills.

    Despite his present exalted patent of nobility, Hektor Aplyn had most definitely not been born to the aristocracy. His was a family of sturdy, hard working merchant seamen, and young Hektor’s appointment as a midshipman in the Royal Charisian Navy had represented a significant step upward for the Aplyns. He’d hoped to make a decent career for himself — the Charisian Navy was really the only one on Safehold where a commoner had an excellent chance of rising to even the highest ranks, and more than one man as commonly born as he had ended up with a knighthood and an admiral’s streamer, when all was said. He could think of at least a half-dozen who’d earned baronetcies, and a least one who’d died an earl, for that matter. But he’d never dreamed for a moment that he might end up a duke!

    Then again — his amusement dimmed — he’d never expected to have his king die in his arms, or to live with the knowledge that his monarch had received his fatal wound fighting to protect him. Never anticipated that he would be one of only thirty-six survivors of the entire crew of King Haarahld VII’s flagship. In fact, three of those survivors had eventually died of their wounds in the end, after all, despite all the healers could do, and of the thirty-three who hadn’t, eleven had been so badly wounded they would never go to sea again. The odds that he might simply have survived that level of carnage, far less remained on active duty after it, would have struck him as tiny enough on their own. The possibility of his being adopted into the House of Ahrmahk, of becoming legally the son of Emperor Cayleb himself, would never have occurred to him in the wildest delirium. And, if anyone had ever suggested the possibility to him, he would have run screaming in terror from the prospect. What could he, the son of a merchant galleon’s first officer, possibly have in common with the royal family? The very idea was absurd!

    Unfortunately, it had happened. Probably, in the fullness of time, Hektor was going to come to consider that a good thing. He was perfectly prepared to admit the possibility — he wasn’t stupid, after all — but his immediate reaction had been one of abject panic. Which was why he was so grateful he’d wound up in Destiny. Sir Dunkyn Yairley was scarcely from the rarefied heights of the nobility himself, but he was at least related, albeit it distantly, to three barons and an earl. More to the point, he’d taken pains from the outset to personally instruct young Midshipmen Aplyn-Ahrmahk in the etiquette which went with his towering new aristocratic rank.

    Starting with which fork to use, Hektor reflected, grinning again as he remembered how the captain had rapped him sharply across the knuckles with his own fork when he reached for the wrong one. I thought sure he’d broken them! But I suppose –

    “Sail ho!” the hail came down from the lookout perched in the mainmast crosstrees, a hundred and ten feet above the deck. From there, the horizon was almost eleven and a half miles further away than it was from deck level, and on a clear day like today, he could undoubtedly see that far.

    “Two sail, five points to larboard!” the lookout amplified a moment later.

    “Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk!” a closer, deeper voice said, and Hektor turned to find himself facing Lieutenant Rhobair Lathyk, Destiny’s first lieutenant, who had the watch.

    “Aye, Sir?” Hektor touched his chest with his right fist in salute. Lathyk was a tall man — tall enough he had to mind his head constantly under the ship’s deck beams — and he had a short way with slackers. He insisted on proper military courtesy at all times, especially out of extremely junior officers. But he was also a fine seaman, and he didn’t (usually) go out of his way to find fault.

    “Get aloft, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk,” Lathyk said now, handing him the watch spyglass. “See what you can tell us about these fellows.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir!”

    Hektor seized the telescope, slung its carrying strap over his shoulder, and leapt nimbly for the ratlines. Lathyk could easily have sent one of the galleon’s midshipmen, but Hektor was glad he hadn’t. One of the things he missed, thanks to his recent promotion and appointment as Destiny’s acting fifth lieutenant, was that no lieutenant — not even one who was really a lowly ensign — was allowed to race his fellows up and down the rigging the way mere midshipmen could. Unlike many of his fellows, Hektor had been born with an excellent head for heights. He’d loved spending time in the tops, and laying out along the yard, even in the roughest weather, had never truly bothered him. Scared him sometimes, yes, but always with that edge of exhilaration to keep the terror company, and now he went scampering up the humming weather shrouds like a monkey-lizard.

    He ignored the lubber’s hole when he reached the maintop, hanging from his fingers and toes as he climbed the futtock shrouds around the top instead, then swarmed on up the topmast shrouds. Wind whistled chill around his ears and burned cold in his lungs, and his eyes were bright with pleasure as the shrill whistle of one of the sea wyverns following the ship, perpetually hopeful of snapping up some tasty tidbit of garbage, floated to him.

    “Where away, Zhaksyn?” he asked the lookout as he reached the sailor’s dizzying roost. The lookout was perched on the crosstrees, one leg dangling nonchalantly between the weather hounds, one arm wrapped around the foot of the topgallant mast, and he grinned as his eyes met Hektor’s.

    It was colder up here, and the wind always grew fresher as one climbed higher above the deck. (That much was a known fact, although Hektor had no idea why it should be so.) Despite the exertion of his climb, he was grateful for his thick watch coat, heavy gloves, and the soft, knitted muffler Princess Zhanayt had given him last Midwinter Day. The main topmast head was almost a foot and a half in diameter where its upper end passed through the cap above the crosstrees, which helped support the topgallant mast, and it shivered against his spine as he leaned back against it, vibrating like a living thing with the force of wind and wave. When he looked straight down, he saw not Destiny’s deck but the gray-green and white water creaming away from her leeward side as she leaned to the press of her canvas. If he fell from his present position, he’d hit water, not planking. Not that it would make much difference. As cold as that water was, his chances of surviving long enough for anyone aboard ship to do anything to save him would be effectively nonexistent.

    Fortunately, he had no intention of doing anything of the sort.

    “There, Sir,” the lookout said, and pointed.

    Hektor followed the pointing finger, nodded, and hooked one knee securely around the topmast head as he used both gloved hands to raise the heavy telescope and peered through it.

    Steadying something the size of a powerful telescope, especially while one swept through a dizzying arc with the ship’s motion, was not a task to be lightly undertaken. The fact that Hektor would never be a large, powerfully built man like Lathyk didn’t make it any easier, either. On the other hand, his slender boy’s frame was filling out steadily into a well-muscled wiriness, and he’d had lots of practice. He supported the tube on his left forearm, swinging it through a compensating arc, and captured the pale flaw of the distant ships’ topsails with a steadiness a landsman would have found difficult to credit.

    Even from here, the ships to whom those sails belonged remained hull-down. He could see only their topsails fully, although the tops of their main courses came into sight when both they and Destiny happened to rise simultaneously. Assuming their masts were the same length as Destiny’s, which would put their main yards about fifty feet above the water, that made them about fourteen and a half miles distant.

    He studied them carefully, patiently, evaluating their course and trying to get some feel for their speed. His eye ached as he stared through the spyglass, but he neither blinked nor lowered the glass until he was satisfied. Then he sighed in relief, let the glass come back to hang from its shoulder strap once more, and rubbed his eye.

    “What d’you make of ‘em, Sir?” the seaman asked.

    Hektor turned his head to arch one eyebrow at him, and the sailor grinned. It was unlikely, to say the least, that he would have been forward enough to pose the same question to Lieutenant Lathyk, and Hektor knew some of his fellow officers — Lieutenant Garaith Symkee, Destiny’s second lieutenant, came rather forcibly to mind — would have been quick to depress the man’s “pretension.” For that matter, he supposed a mere ensign had even more reason than most to be sure he guarded his authority against over familiarity from the men he commanded. Captain Yairley, on the other hand, who never seemed to have any particular difficulty maintaining his authority, would simply have answered the question, and if it was good enough for the Captain . . .

    “Well,” Hektor said, “it’s still a bit far away to be making out details, even with the glass, but unless I’m mistaken, at least the nearer of them is flying a Church pennant.”

    “You don’t say, Sir!” Zhaksyn’s grin grew considerably broader. He actually rubbed his hands together in anticipation, since the presence of the Church pennant automatically made the ship flying it a legitimate prize, waiting to be taken, and Hektor grinned back at him. Then the ensign allowed his smile to fade into a more serious expression.

    “You did well to spot them, Zhaksyn,” he said, patting the older man (although, to be fair, Zhaksyn was only in his late twenties; topmen were generally chosen from the youngest and fittest members of a ship’s company) on the shoulder.

    “Thank’ee, Sir!” Zhaksyn was positively beaming now, and Hektor nodded to him, then reached for the shrouds once more. He was strongly tempted to slide down the backstay, but the youthful exuberance of his midshipman’s days was behind him now — Lieutenant Lathyk had made that point rather firmly just last five-day — and so he descended in a more leisurely fashion.

    “Well, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk?” the first lieutenant inquired as he reached the ship’s rail, hopped down onto the deck, and made his way aft once more.

    “There are definitely two of them, Sir — that we can see so far, at any rate. Galleons, ship-rigged, but not as lofty as we are, I think. They aren’t carrying royal masts, anyway. I make the range about fourteen or fifteen miles, and they’re sailing on the wind, almost exactly northwest-by-north. They’re showing their courses and topsails, but not their topgallants, and I think the closer of the two is flying a Church pennant.”

    “Is she, now?” Lathyk mused.

    “Yes, Sir. And as she lifted, I could just catch a glimpse of her mizzen. I couldn’t see her headsails, so I can’t say for sure that she’s got the new jibs, but she’s definitely got a gaff spanker. She’s wearing new canvas, too — it’s hardly weathered at all — and I think she’s big, Sir. I’d be surprised if she were a lot smaller than we are.”

    Lathyk’s eyes narrowed, and Hektor could almost feel him following the same logic chain Hektor had already explored. Then the first lieutenant nodded, ever so slightly, and turned to one of the midshipmen hovering nearby.

    “My respects to the Captain, Master Zhones, and inform him that we have sighted two galleons, bearing almost due north, distance about fourteen miles, running northwest by north, and Master Aplyn Ahrmahk” — the first lieutenant smiled slightly at Hektor — “is firmly of the opinion that at least one of them is a large, newly rigged galleon in the service of the Church.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir!” young Zhones squeaked. He couldn’t have been more than twelve years old, which struck Hektor as absurdly young . . . despite the fact that he himself had been at sea for three years by the time he’d been that age.

    The midshipman started for the hatch at a semi-run, then froze as Lathyk cleared his throat loudly enough to be heard even over the sounds of wind and wave. The boy peered at him for a second, huge-eyed, then hastily straightened and came to attention.

    “Beg pardon, Sir!” he said, and then repeated Lathyk’s message word for word.

    “Very good, Master Zhones,” Lathyk confirmed with a nod when he’d finished, and the midshipman darted away again. Hektor watched him go and remembered a time when he’d garbled a message, and not to any mere master-after-God captain, either. He’d been positive he was going to die of humiliation right on the spot. And, assuming he’d survived that, he’d known Captain Tryvythyn would give him The Look, which would be considerably worse, when he heard about the transgression.

    I suppose it was just as well, the ensign reminded himself, managing not to smile as Zhones disappeared down the main hatch, that His Majesty forgave me after all.



    “So, Ruhsail, what do you make of her?” Commodore Wailahr inquired as he stepped out from under the break of the poop deck, and Captain Ruhsail Ahbaht, commanding officer of the Imperial Desnarian Navy galleon Archangel Chihiro, turned quickly to face him.

    “Beg your pardon, Sir Hairahm.” The captain saluted. “I didn’t realize you’d come on deck.”

    “Well, I hadn’t, until this very minute,” Wailahr said just a bit testily. The commodore was a solidly built man, his dark hair starting to silver at the temples. There were a few strands of white in his neatly trimmed beard, as well, but his dark eyes were sharp and alert.

    He was accompanied by Father Awbrai Lairays, his chaplain, in the purple, flame-badged cassock of the Order of Schueler.

    “Yes, Sir. Of course you hadn’t,” Ahbaht replied quickly, but his voice still held that same edge of half-apprehensive apology, and he looked so much as if he were planning to salute yet again that Wailahr found it difficult not to grimace. He knew he was lucky to have a flag captain of Ahbaht’s experience, but he did wish that, after more than three thousand miles and three and a half five five-days at sea, the captain would forget he was related — distantly, and only by marriage — to the Earl of Hankey.

    “No reason you should have realized I was here, until I spoke.” The commodore tried (mostly successfully) to keep any exaggerated patience out of his tone and glanced rather pointedly up at the lookout whose report had summoned him to the deck.

    “It sounds like it’s probably a Charisian galleon, Sir,” Ahbaht said in response to the hint. “The lookout ought to have sighted her sooner, but she’s still a good eleven or twelve miles clear. Still, she’s close enough for us to get a good look at her canvas, and she’s obviously got the new rig. She’s also carrying a lot of sail for these weather conditions, and she’s making straight for us.” He shrugged very slightly. “Given that almost all the armed ships cruising these waters have been Charisian for the better part of a year, I doubt anyone but a Charisian would be making sail to overhaul anyone she hadn’t definitely identified as a friend.”



    Wailahr nodded slowly as he considered Ahbaht’s analysis of the other galleon captain’s thinking. It made sense, he decided, and after twenty-six years in the Crown’s service, he had more than enough experience as an officer himself to appreciate what his flag captain had offered about the probable Charisian’s thought processes. Unfortunately, he was far less well qualified to evaluate some of the other factors involved in the developing situation, since almost all of his own experience had been ashore, most of it as a cavalry commander in the Imperial Army. As in the majority of Safeholdian realms, traditional Desnairian practice had always been to assign army commanders to its warships (of which it had possessed precious few), each with an experienced seaman to translate his decisions and commands into action. It was a warship commander’s job to fight, after all, and a professional military man had more important things to worry about than the technical details of making the boat go where it was supposed to go.

    Or that’s the theory, at any rate, Wailahr told himself sourly. And I suppose if I’m going to be fair, it’s always worked well enough against other people who do the same thing. Unfortunately — there was that word again — Charis doesn’t. And it hasn’t, not for a long time.

    As a loyal subject of Mahrys IV and an obedient son of Mother Church, Sir Hairahm Wailahr was determined to make a success of his present assignment, but he had few illusions about his own knowledge of things naval. He was out of his depth (he grimaced mentally at his own choice of phrase) as the commander of one of the Navy’s new galleons, much less an entire squadron, which was the reason he was so grateful for Ahbaht’s experience.

    Even if he did want to kick the captain in the arse from time to time.

    “You say he’s making for us, Captain,” Wailahr said after a moment. “Do you mean he’s pursuing us?”

    “Most likely, Sir.” Ahbaht swept one arm in a half-circle in the general direction of the other ship, still invisible from Archangel Chihiro’s deck. “There’s a lot of ocean out there, Sir Hairahm, and not much shipping on it since the damned Charisians started privateering. It wouldn’t be unreasonable for a merchant galleon to be making for Terrence Bay, just as we are. But, as I say, without positively knowing we were friendly, I’d expect any merchant skipper to keep his distance. He’d certainly have reduced sail to maintain our current separation, I’d think, even if he’s headed for Silk Town or for Khairman Keep, like we are. And even though the lookout isn’t positive, he thinks this fellow has made more sail.”

    “He isn’t positive about something like that?” Wailahr raised one eyebrow.

    “He says he isn’t, Sir. I can get him down here to speak to you personally, of course.” The flag captain gave another of those small shrugs. “I had Lieutenant Chaimbyrs speak with him already, though. It’s the Lieutenant’s opinion that what really caught the lookout’s eye in the first place was this other ship’s setting additional canvas.”

    “I see.”

    Ahbaht’s response had just neatly encapsulated both his greatest strength and, in Wailahr’s opinion, his greatest weakness as a flag captain. Or as any sort of military commander, for that matter. From his tone and his body language he was completely prepared to summon the lookout to the deck so that Wailahr could personally browbeat the man, yet he’d also had Lieutenant Zhustyn Chaimbyrs, Archangel Chihiro’s second lieutenant, interrogate the sailor first. Chaimbyrs was himself an excellent young officer — one Wailahr already had an eye on for promotion — and he would have gotten the lookout’s very best estimate out of him without intimidating him. It was just like Ahbaht to have made exactly the right choice about how to get the most accurate information possible, on the one hand, and yet to be willing to allow a possibly irritated superior to vent his spleen on the seaman who’d provided it, on the other. Especially if that superior had the sort of court influence which might benefit his own career.

    Be fair, Hairahm, the commodore reminded himself for perhaps the thousandth time. Unlike you, Ahbaht has no connections at all, and the man’s already — what? Forty-three? Whatever. Old enough at any rate to expect he’s not going to climb much higher without someone to give him a boost. Although I’d think the fact that they picked him to command one of the very first galleons ought to go at least a little way towards reassuring him.

    On the other hand, the Navy had never been exactly glamorous in Desnarian eyes. Quite a few of the career naval officers Wailahr had met over the last several months seemed to find it a bit difficult to grasp just how much that was about to change.

    “All right, Ruhsail,” he said out loud after several seconds’ thought. “What do you recommend?”

    “Recommend, Sir?” Ahbaht’s eyes flitted sideways for a moment, towards Lairays.

    “Do we let him catch us, or do we make more sail of our own?” Wailahr expanded in a slightly dangerous tone.

    Ahbaht’s eyes came back to the commodore’s face, and Wailahr managed not to sigh in exasperation. As far as he could tell, there was nothing at all wrong with Ahbaht’s physical courage, but it was obvious he had no more intention of putting his foot wrong in front of Lairays than he did of offending Wailahr himself.

    Which, Wailahr was forced to concede upon more mature consideration, was probably wise of him, in many ways, after all. Lairays hadn’t been the commodore’s own choice as chaplain. He’d been assigned to Wailahr by Bishop Executor Mhartyn Raislair, and his presence was a clear statement of exactly who Archangel Chihiro actually belonged to. She might fly Desnair’s black horse on a yellow field, but there was a reason Mother Church’s pennant flew above the national colors. For the moment, no one was talking a great deal about that reason — not openly, at any rate. But only a complete moron (which, despite his obsequiousness, Ahbaht clearly wasn’t) could have failed to realize that all the rumors about the imminence of Holy War had a very sound basis, indeed.

    It was fortunate, in Wailahr’s opinion, that there seemed to be little of the fanatic about Father Awbrai. Zealotry, yes, which was only to be expected in the priest the bishop executor had chosen as his personal eyes and ears on Wailahr’s staff, but not fanaticism. He was unlikely to hold Ahbaht’s honest opinion against the flag captain, whatever it was, but Wailahr supposed he shouldn’t really blame Ahbaht for being cautious in front of him.

    “I suppose, Sir, that that depends on what it is we want to accomplish,” the flag captain said finally. “If our sole concern is to collect the bullion from Khairman Keep, then I would advise against accepting action.” His eyes tried to flick to Lairays again, but he kept his voice commendably firm as he continued. “While there are two of us and only one of him, it’s entirely possible — even probable — that we’d suffer at least some damage even against one of their privateers. If this is one of their war galleons, the chance of that goes up considerably. And any damage we might suffer would have to be put right again before we could sail with the bullion, which would undoubtedly delay its delivery.”

    A reasonable answer, Wailahr reflected. And a well taken point, for that matter.

    He didn’t know the precise value of the gold shipment awaiting his two ships, but he knew it was large. In fact, it was a substantial portion of Desnair’s annual tithe to Mother Church, actually. Which, considering the incredible outlays the Temple had been making to pay for the new warships building all over Hauwerd and Haven, lent a certain urgency to getting that gold safely delivered to the Temple’s coffers in Zion. Vicar Rhobair’s Treasury needed all the cash it could get, and given typical winter road conditions, it made sense to send it by sea for as much of its journey as possible. Or it would have, at least, if not for the omnipresent Charisian privateers, and if the ships building in the Gulf of Jahras, conveniently close to Khairman Keep, had been near enough to ready for sea to take it. As it happened, however, those Charisian privateers did, indeed, seem to be just about everywhere, and none of the new construction at Iythria or Mahrosa had been far enough advanced for the task. Which explained why he and the first two fully operational ships of his squadron had been dispatched all the way from the imperial capital at Desnair the City (so called to distinguish it from the rest of the empire) to fetch it.

    We’re already behind schedule, too, and Bishop Executor Mhartyn won’t thank me if I’m even later, he thought. There are two of us, though, and sooner or later we have to cross swords with them. Langhorne knows the sheer terror of the Charisians’ reputation is one of their most effective weapons! Deservedly so, I suppose. But they’re only mortals, when all’s said, and we need to start chipping away at that reputation . . .

    He glanced at “his” chaplain.

    “Father, I’m inclined to let this fine gentleman overhaul us, if that’s his intention. Or to let him get at least a bit closer, at any rate. Close enough for us to see who he really is. If he’s only a privateer, I imagine he’ll sheer off once he realizes he’s been chasing a pair of war galleons, and, to be honest, I’d like to get him close enough we’d have a chance to catch him if he runs.”

    “And if he’s a war galleon himself, Commodore?” Lairays deep voice sounded even deeper coming from someone as youthful looking as the under-priest, and the brown cockade of his priest’s cap fluttered in the stiff breeze whipping across Archangel Chihiro’s quarterdeck.

    “If he’s a war galleon, then I suppose it’s possible he’ll keep right on coming,” Wailahr replied. “If he does, as the Captain’s just pointed out, there are two of us, which should give us a considerable advantage if we can entice him into engagement range. Do you think His Eminence would be willing to put up with a little delay while we repair any battle damage in return for taking or sinking one of Cayleb’s warships?”



    “Deck, there! The nearer chase is shortening sail!”

    Captain Sir Dunkyn Yairley looked up at the mizzen crosstrees and frowned slightly as the announcement came down from above.

    “She’s takin’ in her topgallants, Sir!” the lookout continued. “Both of ‘em are!” he added a minute or so later, and Yairley’s frown deepened.

    It was merely a thoughtful frown, however, Hektor Aplyn-Ahrmahk observed, and set his own mind to following the captain’s thoughts.

    It could be that the other ship had simply decided she was carrying too much sail for safety. The other two galleons had come to a more northerly heading, about north-northwest, and set their topgallants once they realized Destiny was pursuing them, but that didn’t mean their commander had been happy about his own decision. His ships’ rigs might be considerably more powerful than they would have been two or three years ago, but very few vessels in the world had sail plans as powerful — and well-balanced — as those of the present Charisian navy.

    Destiny’s masts were taller, proportionately, and included the lofty royal masts her quarry lacked, yet it wasn’t simply a matter of more mast height, either. If she’d set every scrap of canvas she had, including all her fore-and-aft staysails and all three jibs, she would have shown twenty-five sails. Not only that, the new water-powered Charisian looms meant her sails had a much tighter weave, which let them capture more of the wind’s power, and they were cut to the new, flat pattern Sir Dustyn Olyvyr had introduced. The ships she was pursuing didn’t carry royals or staysails; they would have shown only ten under the same circumstances. Those sails were still cut to the old “bag sail” pattern, acting like rounded sacks to catch the wind, rather than the flatter, more perpendicular — and hence more efficient — surface of Destiny’s. Hektor had to admit that the bag sails looked as if they should have been more powerful, but the superiority of Olyvyr’s new patterns had been conclusively demonstrated in competitive sailing tests in Howell Bay.

    The proportions of the other ships’ sails were significantly different, as well, for Destiny’s topsails had both a greater hoist and a broader head, which gave each of them significantly more area and made them more powerful. In fact, her topsails were actually her principal sails, whereas the courses set below them remained the primary sails for the ships she was pursuing.

    Of course, there was a vast difference between the total canvas a ship could set under optimum conditions and the amount it was safe to carry in any given sea state. In some respects, in fact, Destiny and her sisters were actually over-sparred. It would have been easy to set too much sail, drive her too hard — even dangerously too hard — under the wrong circumstances. Besides, there was a point at which crowding on more sail actually slowed a ship, by driving her head too deeply into the sea or heeling her so sharply it distorted the water flow around her hull, even if it didn’t actually endanger her. So, in most respects, how many sails a ship had mattered less than the total sail area she could show under the current strength of wind and wave.

    But it did matter how that area was distributed, because of how it affected the ship’s motion. At the moment, for example, one reason Captain Yairley had set the fore course was that unlike the ship’s other square sails, the fore course actually tended to lift the bow slightly, easing the vessel’s motion, rather than driving the bow down deeper and harder. A captain had to think about the blanketing effect of his sails, as well, and, generally speaking, the higher a sail, the greater its heeling effect. So in heavy weather, the standard order of reducing sail would be to take in first the royals (assuming the ship carried them in the first place), then the topgallants, the courses, and finally the topsails. (The courses came off before the higher topsails because of their greater size and the difficulty in handling them, despite the greater heeling effect of the topsails.)

    Hektor’s own initial estimate that the other galleons were as large as Destiny appeared to have been in error, too. The other ships were at least a little smaller than he’d thought, although not greatly so, which meant Destiny could safely carry more canvas than they could under these conditions. Captain Yairley had been doing just that, having shaken out his reefs and set the fore course (the main course was brailed up to keep it from blanketing the foremast, with the wind dead aft on her new course), and even without her own royals, Destiny’s speed had risen to almost eight knots. She’d been steadily overhauling the other vessels for the past five hours now, despite the fact that they’d both put on extra sail of their own once they finally noticed they were being pursued, so it was certainly possible — likely, in fact — the chases had decided they couldn’t outrun Destiny after all. And if that was the case, there was no point in their risking damage to sails or rigging by carrying too much canvas. Particularly not since it was always possible something would carry away aloft in Destiny, in which case they might be able to out-sail her yet.

    On the other hand, the topgallants would have been the first sails to be furled if a captain decided to shorten for any reason, not simply because of weather concerns. So it was also possible the other ships had simply decided to allow Destiny to overtake them. Which would require either a very stupid merchant skipper, given the depredations of Charisian privateers and naval cruisers, or else a –

    “I believe we’ll clear the ship for action in about another . . . three hours, I think, Master Lathyk,” Yairley said calmly. “We’ll be coming up on lunch shortly, I believe, so there’s no point rushing things. But see to it all hands get something hot to eat, and plenty of it, if you please.”

    “Aye, Sir,” the first lieutenant acknowledged. He beckoned to one of the midshipmen and started giving the lad crisp instructions, and Yairley glanced at Hektor.

    “You don’t think they’re merchantmen after all, do you, Sir?” Hektor asked quietly. Some captains would have bitten the head off of any officer, be he ever so well connected to the aristocracy, for having the impertinence to ask him such a question uninvited. Hektor wasn’t concerned about that, though, and not because of his own noble title.

    “No, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk, I don’t,” Yairley replied. He nodded ahead to where the other ships’ sails were visible now from the deck as Destiny rose with the waves. “Both those fellows are inviting us to catch up with them, and no merchant skipper would do that, even if they haven’t seen our colors by now. Which they well may not have.”

    He glanced up to where the Empire’s banner streamed out, stiff and hard-looking, from the mizzen yard. On Destiny’s new course, running almost directly before the wind as she charged after the other ships, it was entirely possible that her colors were hidden from her quarry by the canvas on her foremast and mainmast.

    “They may not realize we’re a king’s ship — I mean, an emperor’s ship –” Yairley grimaced as he made the self-correction, “but they have to assume we’re at least a privateer. Under the circumstances, merchant vessels would go right on running for all they were worth in hopes of staying away from us until dark. Mind you, I don’t think they’d succeed, but they might, and no one ever knows what the wind’s going to do.”

    He paused, one eyebrow raised, and Hektor recognized the cue.

    “So if they aren’t running as hard as they can — if they’ve decided they want us to catch up with them while we’ll both have daylight still in hand — you think they’re war galleons, too, Sir,” he said.

    “I think that’s very likely, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk.” Yairley nodded slightly, with the satisfaction of a teacher whose student had drawn the proper conclusion. “I’d thought for a moment, before they both shortened, that it might be a merchant with an escort dropping astern of the ship under his protection. But no escort would be foolish enough to keep his charge in close company if he’d decided to drop back to engage us, so it seems to me we have to assume they’re both warships. According to Baron Wave Thunder’s latest estimates, Desnair should have at least a dozen of their converted galleons about ready for sea. There’s no way to be positive yet, but I’ll be quite surprised if these aren’t two of them. The only question in my mind,” the captain continued, his voice becoming a bit dreamy as his eyes unfocused in thought, “is what two of them would be doing out here by themselves.”

    “They might simply be working up, Sir,” Hektor suggested diffidently, and Yairley nodded.



    “Indeed they might, but not this far out to sea, I’m thinking.” He indicated the brisk wind, the motion of the hard-driven ship, with a twitch of his head. “These conditions are a bit lively for a lubberly lot like the Desnairian Navy, wouldn’t you say, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk? I’d expect them to stay closer to home if all they’re after is sail drill, especially if there are only two of them. We’re a good six hundred and fifty leagues from their shipyards at Geyra — and over a hundred leagues off Hennet Head, for that matter. It’s possible they’re from the ships building in the Gulf of Jahras instead of the Geyra yards. God knows they’re building a lot more of their total navy in the Gulf than they are at Geyra. But even that would be an awful long way to come just to drill their crews, and I’d think Baron Jahras would be a tad nervous about having just two of his meet a squadron or two of our galleons when they decided to venture out into deeper water. He’s certainly been . . . cautious enough about things like that so far, at least. So I wonder . . . .”

    The captain stood thinking for several more moments, then nodded again, this time obviously to himself, before he glanced once more at the youthful ensign standing beside him.

    “I can think of one good reason for them to be here, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk,” he said with a slight smile. “And if I’m right, the men are going to be just a bit unhappy that we sighted them when we did, instead of a few days later.”

    “Sir?” Hektor suppressed an urge to scratch his head in puzzlement, and Yairley’s smile broadened.

    “Now then, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk! A captain has to maintain at least a few little secrets, don’t you think?”



    “Excuse me, Sir.”

    Captain Ahbaht turned, raising one eyebrow, to face Lieutenant Laizair Mahrtynsyn, Archangel Chihiro’s first lieutenant.

    “Yes, Laizair? What is it?” Ahbaht’s tone was a bit brusque. He and Mahrtynsyn normally got along quite well, but at the moment, as the pursuing vessel’s lower masts began to loom above the horizon, even from deck level, the captain had a few things on his mind. The distance to the other ship was down to little more than seven miles, and given their present speeds, she would be up to Archangel Chihiro in no more than two or two and a half hours. For that matter, she’d be into extreme gunshot in little more than ninety minutes.

    “Master Chaimbyrs” — Mahrtynsyn twitched his head slightly in the direction of the mizzen top, where Lieutenant Chaimbyrs was ensconced watching the other ship — “reports that he’s just seen her colors, Sir. She’s flying the Charisian banner . . . and a commission streamer.”

    Ahbaht’s expression tightened ever so slightly. Only someone who knew the captain well would have noticed, but Mahrtynsyn did know him well. And he also knew exactly what Ahbaht was thinking. The fact that Chaimbyrs had finally seen the colors which had been masked by her canvas only confirmed the captain’s previous near-certainty that she had to be Charisian. But the commission streamer . . . that was something else entirely. No privateer would have been flying that. Only ships of the Royal Charisian Navy — or, rather, the Imperial Charisian Navy, these days — flew those.

    “I see,” Ahbaht said, after a moment. “And has he had an opportunity to estimate her force?”

    “We’ve not seen her ports yet, Sir, but she’s carrying at least ten or twelve of their short guns on her weather deck. Probably more. And,” Mahrtynsyn added almost apologetically, “Master Chaimbyrs says she doesn’t look merchant-built to him.”

    The tightening around the captain’s eyes was more noticeable this time. If Chaimbyrs’ estimates were correct — and the second lieutenant was quite a competent officer — then their pursuer wasn’t simply an imperial warship, but one of the Charisian Navy’s new, purpose-built galleons, whereas both of Wailahr’s ships were converted merchant vessels.

    “I see,” Ahbaht repeated, nodding to his first officer. “Thank you, Master Mahrtynsyn.”

    Mahrtynsyn touched his chest in salute, then withdrew to the larboard side of the quarterdeck while Ahbaht clasped his hands behind his back and turned to the rail, gazing out across the crested waves in obvious thought.

    The lieutenant didn’t envy his captain at the moment. On the other hand, he didn’t feel an enormous amount of sympathy, either. For the most part, he respected Ahbaht as a seaman, although for all his years of naval service, the captain had precious little experience with galleons. Virtually all of his previous time had been served aboard the Desnairian Navy’s limited number of galleys, and his ship handling skills, while adequate, weren’t as good as Mahrtynsyn’s own. In fact, that was one reason Mahrtynsyn had been assigned as his first lieutenant.

    In terms of military experience, though, Ahbaht was far more qualified to command than Mahrtynsyn was, and the lieutenant knew it. Of course, no one in Desnairian service had any experience at all in broadside gunnery tactics, but at least Ahbaht had smelled powder smoke in actual combat, which was more than Mahrtynsyn had. Given that experience, Ahbaht had to be (or damned well ought to be, at any rate) even better aware of the looming confrontation’s balance of combat power than Mahrtynsyn was.

    Not to mention the minor fact that he should, perhaps, have been just a bit more careful about, spent a little more time thinking over, what he had recommended to Commodore Wailahr.

    At first glance, Wailahr’s two ships ought to have had the advantage. There were two of them, after all. But that wasn’t all that was involved here — not by a long shot.

    One of the Charisian Navy’s new galleons would mount at least fifty guns (and probably more) to Archangel Chihiro’s forty. Worse, they’d be heavier guns. Archangel Chihiro, like her consort, Blessed Warrior, carried twenty-six lizards on her gundeck, and fourteen falcons on her upper deck. That might seem to give her eighty percent of the Charisian’s broadside, and all of their guns not only had the new trunnions and carriages but used the new bagged powder charges the Charisians had introduced, so they ought to be able to match the other ship’s rate of fire, as well. So far, all well and good, Mahrtynsyn thought dryly. But the lizards’ round shot weighed only a bit over twenty pounds each, and the falcons’ weighed less than nine, while if the reports about the Charisians were correct, the other ship would mount long thirty-pounders on her gundeck and short thirty-pounders — what the Charisians called “carronades” — on her upper deck.

    Which would give her over twice Archangel Chihiro’s weight of metal. In fact, she’d carry a heavier weight of broadside than both the Desnarian ships combined . . . in a much more heavily framed and planked hull. And that changed Ahbaht’s earlier calculations significantly. Not only would each hit be far more destructive than he almost certainly had been expecting, but her heavier hull would take substantially less damage from each hit she received in return.

    Of course, two lighter ships, if well handled, ought to be able to outmaneuver a single opponent, and it was extremely unlikely the Charisian carried a big enough crew to fully man both broadsides — especially if she had to reserve hands to manage her own sails. If they could get to grips with her from both sides simultaneously, they ought to be able to overpower her in fairly short order. But while the sail-handling skills of Archangel Chihiro’s crew had improved hugely since they’d left Desnair the City, Mahrtynsyn very strongly doubted they could even come close to an experienced Charisian crew’s level of competence.

    He felt fairly confident that, since the other ship had been cruising alone, with no one else in company with her, Ahbaht had assumed she was most likely a privateer, not a regular man-of-war. It would have been a reasonable enough assumption, in many ways, and had it proved accurate, she would have been far more lightly gunned, while the quality of her ship’s company would have been much more problematical, as well. Besides, privateers weren’t in the business of taking hard knocks if they could avoid it. If a privateer’s skipper had realized he was pursuing two Desnarian warships, rather than a pair of fat merchant prizes, he would almost certainly have decided his time could be more profitably spent elsewhere. A Charisian Navy captain was likely to feel a bit differently about that.

    But just how does the Captain break the news to the Commodore? Mahrtynsyn wondered a bit sardonically. “Excuse me, Commodore, but it turns out that’s a war galleon back there, instead. And I’m just a bit less confident about beating her than I was about beating a privateer.” The lieutenant snorted mentally. Sure, I can just hear him saying that!

    No. Ahbaht wasn’t going to risk pissing Wailahr off by turning cautious at this point. And since Wailahr lacked the seagoing experience to realize exactly how weight of metal and — especially — relative ship handling skills really factored into a sea battle, it was unlikely he was going to recognize just how dicey this entire situation could turn. He certainly wasn’t going to decide to try avoiding action at this point. Not without Ahbaht suggesting it, at any rate.

    Which meant things were going to get just a bit lively in the next two hours or so.



    Sir Dunkyn Yairley gazed ahead at the towering canvas of the Desnairian ships and scratched his chin thoughtfully. As always, the prospect of battle created a hollow, unsettled feeling in his belly. None of his officers and men appeared to share his apprehension, and it was, of course, unthinkable for him to reveal it to them. He often wondered if he was truly fundamentally different from them in that regard, or if they were simply better at hiding their emotions than he was.

    Not that it mattered at the moment.

    “Well,” he remarked out loud, permitting neither his voice nor his expression to hint at any internal trepidation, “at least they seem to have figured out we’re not just some deaf, dumb, and blind merchant ship!”

    The men manning the quarterdeck carronades heard him, as he’d intended, and grinned. Some of them nudged each other in amusement, and a couple actually chuckled. No sign they felt anything but confident anticipation!

    Cheerful idiots, aren’t they? Yairley thought, but there was as much affectionate amusement of his own as exasperation in the reflection.

    He pushed the thought aside as he reconsidered his position.

    He was confident he had an accurate appraisal of the other ships’ armament, now, and he rather wished he’d been up against a few less guns. His own were heavier, and he had no doubt his gun crews were far more experienced, and almost certainly better drilled, into the bargain. But eighty guns were still eighty guns, and he had only fifty-four.

    I wonder if that’s a galley commander over there? he mused.

    It could well make a difference, given the habits of thought involved. Galley captains thought in terms of head-on approaches — since their chase armament, which always mounted the heaviest guns, fired only directly ahead — and boarding tactics. And a galley captain would almost certainly be less skilled when it came to maneuvering a fundamentally clumsy thing like a square-rigged galleon. Besides, galleys had oars. Captains accustomed to being able to row directly into the wind tended to have a less lively appreciation for the value of the weather gauge.

    Yairley stopped scratching his chin and clasped his hands behind him, his expression distant as he contemplated the narrowing stretch of water between Destiny and her adversaries. The Desnairians weren’t quite in line. The wind had backed about five points — from south-southeast to east-southeast — during the long hours since the chase had begun, and the rearmost of the two ships was a good two hundred yards to leeward and astern of her consort as they sailed along on the starboard tack. Yairley wondered if that was intentional or simply sloppy station keeping. Or, for that matter, if it simply represented lack of experience on his opponents’ part. The Desnairian Empire did still follow the tradition of putting army officers in charge of warships, after all.

    Let’s not get too overconfident in that respect, Dunkyn, he reminded himself. Still, we can hope, can’t we?

    Two hundred yards might not sound like an enormous distance to a landsman, but Yairley was no landsman. To an artillerist accustomed to thinking in terms of land battles fought on nice, motionless pieces of dirt, two hundred yards would equate to easy canister range, where it would be difficult for any semi-competent gun crew to miss a target fifty-plus yards long, six or seven yards high, and the next best thing to ten yards wide. For a seaman, accustomed to the fact that his gun platform was likely to be moving in at least three different directions simultaneously, completely irrespective of his target’s motion, a two hundred-yard range was something else entirely.

    Like a perfectly good range to completely waste powder and shot at, the captain thought dryly. Which means those two fellows over there are out of effective support range of one another. Unless I’m obliging enough to sail directly between them, at any rate!

    He glanced up at his own sails, and decided.

    “Master Lathyk.”

    “Yes, Sir?”

    “Let’s get the t’gallants off her, if you please.”

    “Aye, aye, Sir!” The first lieutenant touched his chest in salute, then raised his leather speaking trumpet. “Hands to reduce sail!” he bellowed through it, and feet thundered across the deck planking in response.



    Laizair Mahrtynsyn watched the Charisian through narrow eyes from his station on Archangel Chihiro’s quarterdeck. She was sweeping steadily closer, with her starboard battery run out while she angled towards Archangel Chihiro’s larboard quarter, which didn’t surprise Mahrtynsyn a great deal. It didn’t please him, but it didn’t surprise him, either. The one thing of which he was completely confident was that Cayleb Ahrmahk wasn’t in the habit of assigning his most powerful warships to people who didn’t know what to do with them, and that Charisian captain over there obviously recognized the huge maneuver advantage his possession of the weather gauge bestowed upon him. Because of his position to windward, the choice of when and how to initiate action lay completely in his hands, and he clearly understood exactly what to do with that advantage.

    Mahrtynsyn only wished he was more confident that Captain Ahbaht understood the same thing.

    Whether Ahbaht understood that or not, it was already painfully evident to Mahrtynsyn that the Charisian galleon was being far more ably handled than his own ship. Archangel Chihiro’s sail drill had improved immeasurably during her lengthy voyage from Desnair. Despite that, however, the precision of the other ship’s drill as she reduced canvas only underscored how far Archangel Chihiro’s own company still had to go. The Charisian’s fore course was brailed up and her topgallants disappeared with mechanical precision, as if whisked away by the wave of a single wizard’s magic wand. Two of her jibs disappeared, as well, as she reduced to fighting sail, yet even with her sail area drastically reduced, she continued to forge steadily closer.

    Her speed had dropped with the reduction of sail, but that didn’t make Mahrtynsyn a lot happier. Archangel Chihiro and Blessed Warrior had taken in their own courses in preparation for battle, and that had cost them even more speed than the Charisian had given up. She still had an advantage of close to two knots, and she was only eight hundred yards astern. In fifteen minutes, give or take, she’d be right alongside, and it was evident what her captain had in mind. He intended to keep to leeward of Archangel Chihiro, engaging her larboard broadside with his own starboard guns. With the shift in the wind, both ships were heeling harder now, so his shots might tend to go high, but it would allow him to engage the flagship in isolation, where Blessed Warrior would be unable to engage him closely. In a straight broadside duel, the heavier Charisian galleon would almost certainly overpower Archangel Chihiro in relatively short order.

    Still, if the Captain and the Commodore’s plans work out, it won’t be a straight broadside duel, now will it?

    No, it wouldn’t. Unfortunately, Lieutenant Mahrtynsyn suspected that that Charisian captain over there might just have a few plans of his own.



    “All right, Master Lathyk,” Sir Dunkyn Yairley said, “I think it’s about time.”

    “Aye, Sir,” the first lieutenant responded gravely, and beckoned to Hektor.

    “Stand ready, Master Aplyn-Ahrmahk,” he said, and Hektor nodded — under the rather special circumstances obtaining at the moment, he’d been specifically instructed not to salute in acknowledgment where anyone on the enemy ship might see it — and moved idly a bit closer to the hatch gratings at the center of Destiny’s spar deck. He glanced down through the latticework at the gundeck below. The long thirty-pounders were run out and waiting to starboard, and he smiled as he noted the gun crews’ distribution.

    It was not a particularly pleasant expression.

    “Man tacks and braces!” he heard Lathyk shout behind him.



    Commodore Wailahr stood on Archangel Chihiro’s poop deck, gazing at the steadily approaching Charisian ship.

    It was evident to him that Captain Ahbaht had been less than delighted to discover just how powerful their adversary actually was. Well, Wailahr hadn’t been tempted to turn any celebratory cartwheels himself. And although all of the commodore’s previous combat experience might have been solely on land, his ships had conducted enough gunnery drills for him to suspect their accuracy was going to prove dismal. To some extent, though, that should be true for both sides, and the fact that he had almost twice as many total guns ought to mean he’d score more total hits, as well.

    Assuming he could bring all of them into action.

    So far, he’s doing what Ahbaht predicted, Hairahm, he reminded himself. Now if he just goes on doing it . . . .

    At least before they’d separated to their present distance from one another, Archangel Chihiro and Blessed Warrior had been able to come close enough together for Wailahr and Ahbaht to confer with Captain Tohmys Mahntain, Blessed Warrior’s commanding officer, through their speaking trumpets. Mahntain was a good man — junior to Ahbaht, and a little younger, but also the more aggressive of the two. And he’d understood exactly what Ahbaht and Wailahr had in mind. The commodore was confident of that, and also that he could rely on Mahntain to carry through on his instructions.

    More than that, it was evident Ahbaht’s prediction that the enemy would attempt to engage just one of Wailahr’s ships if the opportunity were offered had been accurate. By deliberately opening a gap between the two Desnarian galleons, he and Wailahr had offered up Archangel Chihiro as what had to be a tempting target. If the Charisian kept to larboard, closing in on Archangel Chihiro’s downwind side, she could range up alongside Wailahr’s flagship and pound her with her superior number and weight of guns when none of Blessed Warrior’s guns could be brought to bear in the flagship’s support.



    But when the enemy ship took the offered advantage, Mahntain would execute the instructions he’d been given earlier. Blessed Warrior would immediately alter course, swinging from her heading of north-northwest to one of west-by-north or even west-southwest, taking the wind almost dead abeam. That course would carry her directly across the Charisian ship’s bow, giving her the opportunity to rake the larger, heavier galleon from a position in which none of the Charisian’s guns could bear upon her in reply.

    As soon as he’d crossed the Charisian’s course, Mahntain would come back onto his original heading . . . by which time (if all had gone according to plan) the Charisian and Archangel Chihiro would have overtaken Blessed Warrior. The bigger galleon would be trapped between Wailahr’s two lighter vessels, where their superior number of guns ought to prove decisive.

    Of course, it’s unlikely things will go exactly “according to plan,” Wailahr reminded himself. On the other hand, even if we don’t pull it off exactly, we should still end up with the tactical advantage.

    The Charisian wouldn’t be able to turn away to prevent Blessed Warrior from raking her from ahead without exposing her equally vulnerable — and even more fragile — stern to Archangel Chihiro’s broadside. She wouldn’t have much choice but to remain broadside-to-broadside with the flagship. So unless Archangel Chihiro took crippling damage to her rigging in the opening broadsides, or unless someone collided with someone else, the advantage should still go to the Desnairians.

    And a collision will work to our advantage, too, Wailahr thought grimly. Good as the Imperial Charisian Marines were, Wailahr’s crews would outnumber the Charisians by two-to-one. A collision that let him board the larger ship and settle things with cold steel wouldn’t exactly be the worst outcome he could imagine.



    Captain Yairley watched the tip of Destiny’s jibboom edging steadily closer to the Desnarian galleon. He could read the other ship’s name off her counter now — Archangel Chihiro, which didn’t leave much doubt about who she’d actually been built to serve — and even without his spyglass, he could make out individual officers and men quite clearly.

    Archangel Chihiro, despite her shorter, stubbier length, stood higher out of of the water than Destiny which undoubtedly made her crankier and more leewardly. She also had less tumblehome (undoubtedly a legacy of her merchant origins), and her forecastle and aftercastle had both been cut down at least somewhat during her conversion. She’d retained enough height aft, however, for a complete poop deck, and in some ways, Yairley wished Destiny had possessed the same feature. Destiny’s helmsmen’s quarterdeck position left them completely exposed — to musketry, as well as cannon fire — whereas Archangel Chihiro’s wheel was located under the poop deck, where it was both concealed and protected.

    As if to punctuate Yairley’s reflections, muskets began to fire from the other vessel. They were matchlocks, not flintlocks, which gave them an abysmally low rate of fire. They were also smoothbores, which wasn’t going to do any great wonders for their accuracy, although pinpoint precision wasn’t much of a factor firing from one moving ship at personnel on the deck of another moving ship. Whether or not any particular target was actually hit under those circumstances was largely a matter of chance, although it was just a bit difficult to remember that when a musket ball went humming past one’s ear.

    As one had just done, a corner of his mind observed.

    Marine marksmen in the fore and maintops began returning fire, and if their rifled weapons weren’t a lot more accurate under the conditions which obtained, the fact that they were armed with flintlocks, not matchlocks, at least gave them a substantially higher rate of fire. Someone screamed at one of the midship starboard carronades as one of those matchlocks did find a target, and Yairley saw a body pitch over the side of Archangel Chihiro’s mizzentop and smash down on the poop deck with bone-pulverizing force as one of his Marines returned the compliment.

    I think we’re just about close enough, now, he mused, and glanced at Lathyk.

    “Now, Master Lathyk!” he said crisply, and the first lieutenant blew his whistle.



    Sir Hairahm Wailahr didn’t even turn his head as the seaman’s body crashed onto the poop deck behind him. The man had probably been dead even before he fell; he was almost certainly dead now, and it wouldn’t have been the first corpse Wailahr had ever seen. He paid no more attention to it than he did to the splinters suddenly feathering the planking around his feet as three or four Charisian musket balls thudded into the deck. The other ship’s marksmen had obviously recognized him as an officer, he noted, even if they didn’t realize exactly how rich a prize he would make. Yet it was a distant observation, one which was not allowed to penetrate below the surface of his mind. The commodore was scarcely unaware of his own mortality, but he had other things to worry about as the tip of the Charisian’s long, lance-like jibboom started to creep level with Archangel Chihiro’s taffrail.

    Langhorne, this is going to hurt! he told himself. The Charisian was coming even closer than he’d anticipated. It looked as if the other galleon’s captain intended to engage from a range of no more than thirty yards. At that range, not even Wailahr’s relatively inexperienced gunners were likely to miss, and he grimaced as he considered the carnage which was about to be inflicted.

    But on both of us, my heretical friend, he thought grimly. On both of us.

    Another few minutes, and –



    “Larboard your helm!” Sir Dunkyn Yairley snapped. “Roundly, now!”

    “Helm a-lee, aye, Sir!” Chief Waigan acknowledged, and he and his assistant spun the big double-wheel’s spokes blurringly to larboard.

    The motion of the wheel moved the ship’s tiller to larboard, which kicked her rudder in the opposite direction. Which, in turn, caused the ship to turn abruptly to starboard.



    Wailahr’s eyes widened as the Charisian suddenly altered course. It was the last thing he’d expected, especially since it sent her turning away from Archangel Chihiro — turning up to windward across his flagship’s wake, and not ranging alongside to leeward as he’d expected. Her yards tracked around with metronome precision as her heading altered, continuing to drive her, yet she slowed drastically as her new course brought her up closer to the wind, and Wailahr’s initial surprise began to turn into a frown of confusion as he found himself looking at the Charisian galleon’s larboard gunports.

    Her closed larboard gunports, since it was her starboard broadside she’d run out when she cleared for action.



    “Roundly, lads! Roundly!” Hektor shouted down through the hatch gratings.

    The admonition probably wasn’t necessary. The officers and men in charge of Destiny’s main armament had undoubtedly heard Lieutenant Lathyk’s whistle almost as well as the carronade gunners on the spar deck weapons. Captain Yairley wasn’t the sort to take chances on something like that, however. It was one of his fundamental principles that a competent officer did everything he could before the battle to minimize the chance of errors or misunderstandings. They were going to happen, anyway, once battle was fairly joined, but a good officer did his best to see to it there were as few as possible . . . and that they didn’t happen any earlier than they had to.

    And this particular evolution presented plenty of opportunity for things to go wrong.

    As the ship rounded up to windward, the seamen who’d been ostentatiously manning the weather carronades (as any wall-eyed idiot on the other ship could plainly see) turned as one and charged, obedient to Lathyk’s whistle, to the opposite side of the deck. The short, stubby carronades of the larboard battery, already loaded and primed, were run out quickly, in plenty of time, but the heavier gundeck weapons were both much more massive and far less handy.

    The good news was that no one aboard Archangel Chihiro had been able to see Destiny’s gundeck. Captain Yairley had been able to send full gun crews to his larboard battery without giving away his intentions. Now the larboard gunports snapped open, gun captains shouted orders, and men grunted with explosive effort as they flung their weight onto side tackles. Gun trucks squealed like angry pigs as they rumbled across planking which had been sanded for better traction, and the long, wicked snouts of the new-model krakens thrust out of the suddenly open ports.

    There wasn’t much time to aim.

    Fortunately, HMS Destiny’s gun captains had enjoyed plenty of practice.



    The world came apart in a deafening bellow of lightning-shot thunder.

    Sir Hairahm Wailahr had never imagined anything like it. To be fair, no one who had never experienced it could have accurately imagined it. He stood on the tall, narrow poop deck of his flagship — a deck little more than forty feet long and barely twenty feet across at its widest point — and twenty-seven heavy cannon exploded in a long, unending drumroll, spitting fire and blinding, choking smoke as Destiny crossed Archangel Chihiro’s stern and her broadside came to bear from a range of perhaps fifty feet. The two ships were so close together that Destiny’s jibboom had actually swung across her enemy’s poop, barely clearing Archangel Chihiro’s mizzen shrouds, as she altered course almost all the way to northeast-by-east, and the concussive force of that many cannon, firing at that short a range, each gun loaded with a charge of grape on top of its round shot, was indescribable. He actually felt the heat of the exploding powder, felt vast, invisible fists of muzzle blast punching his entire body with huge bubbles of overpressure. Felt the fabric of his flagship bucking and jerking — slamming upward against his feet as if some maniac were pounding the soles of his shoes with a baseball bat — as the Charisian fire crashed into her. Planking splintered, the glass of Archangel Chihiro’s big stern windows simply disappeared, and the screams and high-pitched shrieks of men who’d been taken just as completely by surprise as Wailahr himself ripped at his ears even through the incredible thunder of Destiny’s guns.

    Cleared for action, Archangel Chihiro’s gundeck was one vast cave, stretching from bow to stern. A cavern edged with guns, nosing out through the open ports, waiting for a target to appear before them. But the target wasn’t there. It was astern of them, where the gunners crewing those guns couldn’t even see it, far less fire back at it, and six-inch iron spheres came howling down that cavern’s length like Shan-wei’s own demons.

    Half a dozen of the galleon’s lizards took direct hits, their carriages disintegrating into clouds of additional splinters, the heavy bronze gun tubes leaping upward, then crashing back down to crush and mangle the survivors of their crews. Human beings caught in the path of one of those round shot were torn in half with casual, appalling ease. Splinters of the ship’s fabric — some of them as much as six feet long and three or four inches in diameter — slammed into fragile flesh and blood like spears hurled by some enraged titan. Men shrieked as they clutched at torn and riven bodies, and other men simply flew backward, heads or chests or shoulders destroyed in explosions of gore as grapeshot — each almost three inches in diameter — smashed into them.

    That single broadside killed or wounded almost half of Archangel Chihiro’s crew.



    “Bring her back off the wind, Waigan!”

    The captain had to raise his voice to be heard, yet it seemed preposterously calm, almost thoughtful, to Chief Waigan.

    “Aye, aye, Sir!” the petty officer replied sharply, and the wheel went over in the opposite direction as Destiny’s rudder was reversed.

    The galleon didn’t like it, but she answered like the lady she was. Her hull heaved awkwardly as she swung back to the west, across the waves, but Yairley had timed the maneuver almost perfectly, and the wind helped push her back around.

    Destiny came back before the wind, then swept even farther to larboard, taking the wind on her larboard quarter instead of her starboard beam, and her topsail yards swung with machinelike precision as they were trimmed back around.

    She’d lost a great deal of her speed through the water, and Archangel Chihiro’s motion had continued to carry her away from Yairley’s ship, along her earlier course. But there was far too much confusion aboard the Desnairian ship for Captain Ahbaht — or, rather, Lieutenant Mahrtynsyn, since Ruhsail Ahbaht had encountered one of Destiny’s round shot — to even consider altering heading. Her officers were still fighting to reestablish control after the incredible carnage of that first broadside when Destiny swept across Archangel Chihiro’s stern yet again, this time from northeast to southwest, rather than southwest to northeast.

    There hadn’t been time for her gun crews to reload, but they didn’t have to. The starboard guns had been loaded before they were run out, and even with so many hands detailed to man the braces, the starboard battery’s officers had been left more than enough crewmen to fire the already loaded weapons. The range was much greater — well over a hundred yards this time. Closer to a hundred and fifty, actually. But not enough closer to a hundred and fifty.



    “Clear away that wreckage! Get it over the side — now!” Sir Hairahm Wailahr shouted.

    A commodore had no business allowing himself to be distracted from his responsibilities as a flag officer. Wailahr might not be a sailor, but he knew that much. Unfortunately, there was damn-all else he could do at the moment, and he actually grabbed one end of the broken length of gangway which had fallen across the upper deck guns himself. He heaved, grunting with effort, fighting to clear away the wreckage blocking the guns, then wheeled back around, his head coming up, his eyes darting to the wind-shredded smoke astern of his flagship, as HMS Destiny fired her second broadside.

    The next best thing to thirty more heavy round shot came screaming at him. The range was much greater this time, and, unlike the last broadside, many of these shot missed Archangel Chihiro entirely. But some of them didn’t, and one of those which didn’t crashed into the mizzenmast, cutting it cleanly in two eight feet above the deck. It toppled forward, smashing into the mainmast with all its own weight added to the driving pressure of the wind, and the mainmast went with it. Archangel Chihiro shuddered like a mortally wounded prong lizard, then heaved as a torrent of shattered spars and shredded canvas came crashing down across her decks or plunged into the sea alongside. She surged wildly, rounding to the sudden sea anchor of her own rigging, and fresh screams echoed as still more of her crew were crushed under the falling spars or torn apart by the Charisian fire.

    Wailahr staggered clear of the broken mizzen, right hand clutching his left arm. That arm was almost as badly broken as his flagship, a corner of his brain reflected — not that it mattered a great deal at the moment.

    He watched, his eyes bitter with understanding, as the Charisian galleon altered course yet again. She swung back, coming fully back before the wind, her spars once more tracking around as if controlled by a single hand. She leaned to the wind, driving hard as she accelerated once more, and he saw the topgallants blossoming above her topsails. They fell like curtains, then hardened as sheets and tacks were tended, and Destiny came storming past Archangel Chihiro.

    Wailahr turned, looking for Blessed Warrior.

    He knew Captain Mahntain must have been taken at least as much aback by the Charisians’ unexpected maneuvers as Ahbaht and he himself had been. Blessed Warrior had altered course almost automatically when Destiny opened fire, swinging around onto a westerly heading as originally arranged. Unfortunately, that was the only part of Wailahr’s original arrangements which had worked as planned. Worse, neither Destiny nor Archangel Chihiro were where he’d expected them to be when he planned his original tactics. Now Blessed Warrior was well to the southwest of her original track . . . and Destiny, edging around to north-by-northwest, was already heading to pass astern of her — and with the advantage of the weather gauge, as well — rather than finding herself broadside-to-broadside with both of her opponents at once.

    The Charisian galleon’s starboard broadside flamed and thundered yet again as she swept past Archangel Chihiro, heading for her second victim. The foremast, already weakened by the loss of the stays which had once led aft to the vanished mainmast, pitched over the side, leaving Archangel Chihiro completely dismasted. The ship rolled madly, drunkenly, corkscrewing indescribably as the sudden loss of all her tophamper destroyed any vestige of stability, only to snub savagely as she brought up short against the wreckage still anchored to her side by the broken shrouds. Lieutenant Mahrtynsyn was still on his feet, somehow, shouting commands, driving parties of his surviving seamen to clear away the wreckage. Axes flashed and thudded, chopping through tangled cordage, fighting to free the ship even while other sailors and Marines dragged sobbing, screaming, or silently writhing wounded out of the debris.

    Destiny’s passing broadside added still more torn and broken bodies to her cruel toll, but it was obvious Archangel Chihiro had become little more than an afterthought to the Charisian vessel. Wailahr’s flagship was a broken ruin, so badly mangled, with so many of her people dead or wounded, that she could be gathered in any time Destiny got around to it. The enemy had more important concerns at the moment, and Hairahm Wailahr’s jaw clenched with something far worse than the pain of his broken arm.

    He knew Tohmys Mahntain. If there was a single ounce of quitter in Mahntain’s entire body, Wailahr had never seen even a hint of it, and Blessed Warrior was already altering course. Her sail drill lacked Destiny’s polished precision, and the ship wallowed around to her new heading unhappily, sails flapping and thundering in protest. Her maneuver managed to turn her stern away from her enemy before Destiny could rake her as she had Archangel Chihiro, and her starboard guns ran out defiantly. Yet gallant and determined as Mahntain undoubtedly was, the awkwardness with which his ship came onto her new heading only emphasized how little comparison there was between the skill level of his crew and that of the Charisian galleon slicing towards him. He wasn’t simply outgunned and outweighed; he was outclassed, and a part of Sir Hairahm Wailahr wished he still had an intact mast and signal halyards. Wished he could order Mahntain to break off the action and run for it.

    Or surrender, he admitted to himself with bleak, terrible honesty as he watched Sir Dunkyn Yairley’s ship stoop upon her fresh prey like a hunting wyvern. He can’t break off — can’t outrun her or avoid her. And since he can’t –

    Fresh thunder rolled across the icy afternoon sea as the Charisian galleon, as merciless as the kraken emblem of the Ahrmahks flying from its mizzen yard, opened fire yet again.

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